The industry got some major national media coverage recently when ukactive released its new report, Turning the Tide of Inactivity.
Headlines focused on the shocking social aspects: the report found people in deprived areas are having their lives cut short by ill health as a result of inactivity and lack of access to exercise.
Turning the Tide of Inactivity found that in the most deprived areas, one in three people fail to raise their pulse for even 30 minutes a month, compared to one in four in the most affluent areas. And with the most deprived local authorities accounting for 13 of the 15 least active areas in England, there’s a clear and provable correlation between wealth, activity and health.
Establishing the extent of the challenge is a vital first step, but while it’s great work by ukactive to be bringing a fresh focus to the inactivity debate, I’m less comfortable with what appears to be happening next.
That’s because the conversation is quickly turning to the optimum ways in which changes can be made to save the government the most money via its NHS expenditure. This debate is becoming – in part – an exercise in low level thinking, with recommendations, for example, focusing on ‘nudging’ people to make very small changes to their daily routines.
Talking about saving cold hard cash is the most effective way of getting the attention of government, and with this attention – importantly – comes the money to fund health interventions. However, the recommendations I’ve heard so far are so limited in ambition that we really must ask ourselves if this is the full extent of our aspirations as a sector.
The fitness industry has widened its remit to become part of the health community in recent years, and for the most part the two are a good fit, but while public health thinking is very much focused around making very small adjustments on a mass scale to achieve change, the fitness industry has always been very customer-centric and focused on achieving the best outcomes for each and every member.
We must avoid the temptation to only adopt health industry thinking, whereby we accept very low level behaviour change as being a successful outcome for purely financial reasons.
We don’t just want to feel we’ve achieved our aims if we can just get people walking up the stairs once a week to save the government a few million pounds in blood pressure medication. We must be more ambitious than that and aim to get more people from deprived areas really engaged in an active, healthy lifestyle. Anything less is patronising and cynical.
The fitness industry was founded by people passionate about the importance and value of exercise and we know that, done regularly, it works. While it’s great that we’ve found natural bedfellows with the health industry, we must continue to champion our everlasting goal of an active, healthy nation and not get sucked into the politics to the point where we lose sight of our original vision and purpose.